Dear Matthew Alice: Why is it that when you dine in at a restaurant, the waiter leaves you with what is referred to as a check? Why is it not called a bill, since it's money you owe, not money you'll receive. Many of us at work are eager to hear your answer. — JAP, the Net
So now that we’re up, let’s go to lunch. (JAP and Jan must work together, judging from the Dittohead quality of the inquiries.) A “bill” has been an inventory or catalog or general list of things since about the 1300s. By the mid-1400s, that bill included money amounts and the words “Pay up, bub” across the bottom. So, as you suspected anyway, we’ve been plagued with bills for half a millennium. When eateries in the 1630s offered a list of food items available or a list of what was to be served at a banquet, it too was named a bill—a bill of fare.
Dear Matthew Alice, Why is it that when you dine in at a restaurant, you are given what is referral to as a check? Why isn't it called a bill? There are several others waiting for your reply. —Jan Steudtel, San Diego
“Check” is vaguer, if that’s possible. As a written list of things to be taken care of, a.k.a., a checklist, it dates from the 1700s, though the word itself began much earlier as a verb related to the game of chess. We devil-may-care Americans were the first ones to use “check” as a restaurant bill, and we started doing that in the early 1800s. I couldn’t discover the reasoning. It’s not likely a descendent of the British word “cheque,” the thing we bounce. Perhaps the waiter wrote out a check (a list of things the chef was to attend to), then added the prices and gave it to the diner. Granted, the check became a bill once it was presented for payment, but why change its name in the middle of a meal? And I realize that whole convoluted explanation is like being fed a plate of rice cakes when what you really wanted was haunch of venison.